Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nero Wolfe & Orchids, Ammonites, and Secrecy

Secrecy. Conjures up nefarious deeds, people up to no good. During the fight over the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, opponents attacked the legislation for requiring fossil locations on federal land to be kept secret. (“Violates scientific principles,” they railed. They failed to turn back the legislation – see previous posts on topic.) The other perspective on secrecy was on display in two recent articles about rare natural specimens being shielded from aggressive collectors.

Nero Wolfe

But, I didn’t consider a posting on collecting and secrecy until I felt the need to deal with some of life’s stresses by doing what I sometimes do under those circumstances, beat a retreat to detective Nero Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone on West 35th Street (the house number is uncertain, at times the actual street is uncertain as well). With Archie Goodwin doing the legwork, there is such reassuring pleasure in being with Wolfe in the midst of a murder case. Frankly, the mysteries, recounted in Archie’s breezy style, aren’t the attraction. Rather, it’s the relief of being in that oasis of the ordered and familiar within the brownstone. Theodore Horstmann is at work on the more than 20,000 orchids in the top floor plant rooms or the potting room, joined by Wolfe each morning until 11 a.m. Fritz Brenner is in the kitchen creating gourmet masterpieces. Wolfe caps off a gastronomical feast with beer. I take great comfort when the detective says, “I rarely leave my home.”

Author Rex Stout’s fictional world lives on, giving succor, nearly 35 years after his death.

What prompted this posting was that the Wolfe story that came to hand from my library was the novella Black Orchids, one of those rarities in the Wolfe oeuvre in which the great detective actually spends a protracted period away from the brownstone. The world’s only black orchids are on display at a flower show and, given his deep orchid obsession, Wolfe has to see them for himself. It’s fascinating how far he will go to add these plants to his collection – not just leaving the brownstone, but, how about blackmail?

Clearly, collectors on the hunt are a threat.

Canby’s Bog Orchid in Maryland

To what lengths would most of us go to secure that special specimen for own collections? A recent article in the Washington Post offers one take. Recently, a rare orchid, Canby’s bog orchid (Platanthera X canbyi), appeared on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the Nassawango Creek Preserve. Because this natural hybrid of two rare orchids hasn’t been seen in Maryland for a couple of decades, Joe Fehrer, who manages the preserve for the Nature Conservancy, only reluctantly agreed to announce the discovery, insisting that the exact location remain a secret.

Discussing orchid collectors, so-called “orchid heads,” Fehrer is quoted as saying, "They come here and search out rare orchids for their own gratification and remove them. . . . Which makes them all the more rare. We need to be careful. Some of these folks are real sleuths." (Hmmm, I doubt that sleuth Wolfe would consider traipsing through a tick-infested bog even with Platanthera X canbyi as the quarry.)

Fehrer protected the orchid long enough to ensure that its flowers faded and went to seed; one hopes they give rise to a colony of these plants.

Of course, despite the secrecy, orchid heads did find the flower, reportedly posting pictures of it online. The Post reporter quotes horticulture professor Scott Stewart as saying of orchid heads (he is a self-professed one) and their quest for a rare orchid, "The vast majority of us just want to see it. . . . Say they've seen it and check it off their ‘life list’ of orchids they want to view. But there is an extreme element. They want to dig it up and put it in their own personal collection, even if it's illegal. Just to have the satisfaction of knowing that they have it and no one else does fulfills something in their psyche."

[Environmental Intrigue on the Eastern Shore, Brigid Schulte, Washington Post, August 22, 2009 – link here.]

Ammonites in New Jersey

This is NOT the site in question.

Somewhere near Freehold, New Jersey, is a stream site giving up fossils of ammonites that may have survived the KT extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period, though perhaps by only no more than a hundred years, so reports an article in the September, 2009, issue of Scientific American. This runs counter to the common understanding that ammonites completely expired in the KT extinction. Fascinating finding, if borne out by subsequent research.

I’ve screened for Cretaceous fossils in New Jersey, specifically at Big Brook (shown above). Perhaps this site bears some resemblance to Big Brook, though clearly the density of the thorny undergrowth guarding the unnamed stream is special, leading the New Jersey park ranger who discovered the site to call it Agony Creek.

Scientists have been working the site for several years, but the precise location has been kept secret in an effort to prevent looting. Apparently, those efforts have been successful though “poachers have already trawled nearby areas, on the prowl for fossil shark teeth.” I wonder if an article such as this redirects the “fossil heads” to ammonites.

[Digging Up Valuable Fossils in Suburban New Jersey: A fossil search for why some critters made it past the dinosaur-killing event, Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American Magazine, August 25, 2009 - link here.]


I do experience the collector’s impulse to find that beautiful or rare specimen (paleontological, in my case), so I understand that. What I don’t understand is the drive to collect regardless of the larger consequences, to destroy in that effort. But, clearly, it happens . . . often. Even Wolfe succumbed to blackmail in his drive to own the black orchids. As a result, I have come to accept fully that secrecy is a key weapon for those who are responsible for protecting and preserving irreplaceable natural treasures whether they be paleontological like the New Jersey ammonites or living plants like Canby’s bog orchid in Maryland. Without the financial resources to station guards at every important site or to erect barricades to wall out the unscrupulous collector, secrecy is critical. The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act got it right when it said anyone with a permit to gather fossils on federal land cannot reveal data about the location of the collection site without the Secretary’s written permission.

And When Secrecy Is No Longer An Option?

My favorite story of dealing with overly enthusiastic collectors (and the unscrupulous) after any chance of secrecy is blown and the site is readily accessible involves Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut (subject of a previous posting on this blog). In 1966, during the initial stages of building a new Connecticut State Highway Commission building, a bulldozer operator spotted the first of thousands of dinosaur tracks in slabs of sandstone. The project engineer informed higher ups, as well as the press. As a result, the site was invaded by collectors armed with hammers and saws. But, the Highway Commission responded quickly, stopping the project and protecting the site with fencing and, indeed, armed guards. Paleontologists were brought to the site and, based on their recommendation and legislative and executive responses, the area was designated a state park -- three weeks after the site was first discovered!!!

[This account is based on material on the Wesleyan University web site -- link here.]

A couple of informative postscripts to this story. First, though it’s probably apocryphal, it was rumored that when the Highway Department restarted its interrupted building project on a nearby site, the standing order for the bulldozer operators was to proceed at all costs, regardless of what turned up.

Second, just three years ago, new prints were found in another local construction site, but construction proceeded because the tracks were deemed to be of much lesser quality than those at Dinosaur State Park. These more recently discovered tracks were laid down in shale and so were more easily damaged than those at the State Park. In sharp dissent, the Hartford Courant newspaper reportedly editorialized, "The state treats tracks as if the giant reptiles were still making them. . . .The dinosaurs who made the latest set of tracks apparently lived in a bad part of town – the reptilian equivalent of a ghetto." Fine righteous anger.

[Article on new find posted on September 6, 2006 on the site -- link here.]

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